To Eliza Wharton, friendship is the most important aspect of life. She is incredibly dedicated to her friends, and in an epistolary novel consisting entirely of letters, Eliza frequently corresponds with her closest friends but writes her mother, Mrs. Wharton, only twice. Eliza has “a temper peculiarly formed for the enjoyments of social life,” which she values above all else. She even dismisses marriage in large part because she considers it “the tomb of friendship” and refuses to give up her friends and active social calendar. Eliza spends extended periods of time visiting her out-of-town friends, and she regularly seeks their guidance and comfort in navigating issues of romance and marriage. The patriarchal society of eighteenth-century America expects Eliza to marry and settle down with an honorable man, but her “natural disposition for gaiety” makes this nearly impossible. As Eliza attempts—and fails—to conform to society’s expectations, she turns to her friends for support but is met with scorn and criticism. In this vein, while Foster seems to argue that friendship, especially female friendship, can soothe and ease the restrictions and injustices of the patriarchy, she also implies that friendship can bolster patriarchal oppression, as well.
Eliza frequently looks to her friends for comfort and advice, suggesting that friendship is both the wellspring of Eliza’s happiness and the backbone of her life. In a letter to her friend Lucy, Eliza writes: “Fortune, indeed, has not been very liberal in her gifts to me; but I presume on a large stock in the bank of friendship, which, united with health and innocence, give me some pleasing anticipations of future felicity.” Eliza doesn’t have much money, but she is rich in friendship, and this is the primary source of her happiness. When Peter Sanford, a known libertine and womanizer, turns his attention to Eliza, she suspects her cousin and close friend, Mrs. Richman, does not approve. Eliza is unaware of Sanford’s “debauched” reputation, and she relies on her friendship with Mrs. Richman to tell her what her cousin is otherwise too polite to say. “I shall apply the chymical powers of friendship and extract the secret,” Eliza says, knowing mutual friendship will ease truth and elicit advice. After Eliza entertains Sanford’s advances and alienates Reverend Boyer, an honorable man and suitable husband, she immediately regrets her actions and tries to win back Boyer’s affection. As Eliza waits for his answer, she writes Lucy and begs her to write back. “I stand in need of the consoling power of friendship,” Eliza writes. “Nothing can beguile my pensive hours, and exhilarate my drooping spirits, like your letters.” Eliza knows that Boyer is unlikely to take her back, and she can only be comforted by Lucy’s friendly words and reassurances, which once again emphasizes that Eliza sees her friendships as sources of support and nourishment.
However, Eliza’s friends do little to comfort or reassure her, and instead of supporting her, they are openly critical of her. Their scorn reinforces the patriarchal oppression Eliza is trying to overcome. When Eliza initially writes Lucy and tells her about the attention of both Sanford and Boyer, she immediately encourages Eliza to stick with Boyer. “Forgive my plainness,” Lucy writes Eliza. “It is the task of friendship, sometimes to tell disagreeable truths.” She further tells Eliza that Boyer’s “station in life is, perhaps, as elevated as [Eliza] has a right to claim,” and that she should “lay aside her coquettish airs” and act “with that modest freedom, that dignified unreserve which bespeaks conscious rectitude and sincerity of heart.” In other words, Sanford’s high social standing makes him too good for Eliza, and the modest living of the Reverend Boyer is “perhaps” the best Eliza can hope for. Regardless, Lucy implores Eliza to stop behaving in flirtatious ways and entertaining multiple men at once, behavior she indirectly implies makes Eliza undignified and immoral.
Julia Granby, a friend of both Eliza and Lucy, writes to Eliza about the time Lucy rebuked the advances of a “reformed rake” before she married Mr. Sumner. “I hope neither you, nor I,” Julia says to Eliza, “shall ever be tried by a man of debauched principles. Such characters I conceive to be totally unfit for the society of women, who have any claim to virtue and delicacy.” Of course, Julia is fully aware of Eliza’s affection for Sanford despite his rakish ways, and her passive-aggressive comment is an underhanded way of calling Eliza “debauched,” as well and implying she is without “virtue and delicacy.” Even Reverend Boyer, once he dismisses Eliza as a romantic interest, insults her character under the auspices of friendship. “There is a levity in your manners, which is inconsistent with the solidary and decorum becoming a lady who has arrived to years of discretion,” Boyer writes Eliza. “There is also an unwarrantable extravagance betrayed in your dress. […] Too large a portion of your time is devoted to the adorning of your person.” What Boyer only recently considered Eliza’s more attractive and desirable traits he now holds against her. “I wish you to regard this letter as the legacy of a friend,” he concludes, again relying on friendship to relay his damning message.
Boyer never does take Eliza back, and she is driven further into Sanford’s “debauched” arms. Just as Eliza’s friends warn, however, Sanford’s intentions aren’t pure, and he marries another woman for her money, abandoning Eliza without explanation. He returns a year later and continues his seduction of Eliza, leaving her pregnant and unmarried in an unforgiving society. Just when Eliza needs the support of her friends the most, she is forced to flee town and dies alone at a roadside inn. “I have not the resolution to encounter the tears of my friends,” Eliza claims, “and therefore seek shelter among strangers.” Her affair with Sanford has made Eliza “the reproach of her friends,” and she runs rather than faces their harsh judgment.
Friendship Quotes in The Coquette
What, my dear, is your opinion of our favorite Mr. Boyer? Declaring him your favorite, madam, is sufficient to render me partial to him. But to be frank, independent of that, I think him an agreeable man. Your heart, I presume, is now free? Yes, and I hope it will long remain so. Your friends, my dear, solicitous for your welfare, wish to see you suitably and agreeably connected. I hope my friends will never again interpose in my concerns of that nature. You, madam, who have ever known my heart, are sensible, that had the Almighty spared life, in a certain instance, I must have sacrificed my own happiness, or incurred their censure. I am young, gay, volatile. A melancholy event has lately extricated me from those shackles, which parental authority had imposed on my mind. Let me then enjoy that freedom which I so highly prize. Let me have opportunity, unbiassed by opinion, to gratify my natural disposition in a participation of those pleasures which youth and innocence afford.
Of such pleasures, no one, my dear, would wish to deprive you. But beware, Eliza! —Though strowed with flowers, when contemplated by your lively imagination, it is, after all, a slippery, thorny path. The round of fashionable dissipation is dangerous. A phantom is often pursued, which leaves its deluded votary the real form of wretchedness. She spoke with an emphasis, and taking up her candle, wished me a good night. I had not power to return the compliment. Something seemingly prophetic in her looks and expressions, cast a momentary gloom upon my mind! But I despise those contracted ideas which confine virtue to a cell. I have no notion of becoming a recluse. Mrs. Richman has ever been a beloved friend of mine; yet I always thought her rather prudish.
Marriage is the tomb of friendship. It appears to me a very selfish state. Why do people, in general, as soon as they are married, centre all their cares, their concerns, and pleasures in their own families? former acquaintances are neglected or forgotten. The tenderest ties between friends are weakened, or dissolved; and benevolence itself moves in a very limited sphere.
From a scene of constraint and confinement, ill suited to my years and inclination, I have just launched into society. My heart beats high in expectation of its fancied joys. My sanguine imagination paints, in alluring colors, the charms of youth and freedom, regulated by virtue and innocence. Of these, I wish to partake. While I own myself under obligations for the esteem which you are pleased to profess for me, and in return, acknowledge, that neither your person nor manners are disagreeable to me, I recoil at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine me to the duties of domestic life, and make me dependent for happiness, perhaps too, for subsistence, upon a class of people, who will claim the right of scrutinizing every part of my conduct; and by censuring those foibles, which I am conscious of not having prudence to avoid, may render me completely miserable.
I look upon the vicious habits, and abandoned character of Major Sanford, to have more pernicious effects on society, than the perpetrations of the robber and the assassin. These, when detected, are rigidly punished by the laws of the land. If their lives be spared, they are shunned by society, and treated with every mark of disapprobation and contempt. But to the disgrace of humanity and virtue, the assassin of honor; the wretch, who breaks the peace of families, who robs virgin innocence of its charms, who triumphs over the ill placed confidence of the inexperienced, unsuspecting, and too credulous fair, is received, and caressed, not only by his own sex, to which he is a reproach, but even by ours, who have every conceivable reason to despise and avoid him. Influenced by these principles, I am neither ashamed nor afraid openly to avow my sentiments of this man, and my reasons for treating him with the most pointed neglect.
Many faults have been visible to me; over which my affection once drew a veil. That veil is now removed. And, acting the part of a disinterested friend, I shall mention some few of them with freedom. There is a levity in your manners, which is inconsistent with the solidity and decorum becoming a lady who has arrived to years of discretion. There is also an unwarrantable extravagance betrayed in your dress. Prudence and economy are such necessary, at least, such decent virtues, that they claim the attention of every female, whatever be her station or her property. To these virtues you are apparently inattentive. Too large a portion of your time is devoted to the adorning of your person.
How natural, and how easy the transition from one stage of life to another! Not long since I was a gay, volatile girl; seeking satisfaction in fashionable circles and amusements; but now I am thoroughly domesticated. All my happiness is centered within the limits of my own walls; and I grudge every moment that calls me from the pleasing scenes of domestic life. Not that I am so selfish as to exclude my friends from my affection or society. I feel interested in their concerns, and enjoy their company. I must own, however, that conjugal and parental love are the main springs of my life. The conduct of some mothers in depriving their helpless offspring of the care and kindness which none but a mother can feel, is to me unaccountable. There are many nameless attentions which nothing short of maternal tenderness, and solicitude can pay; and for which the endearing smiles, and progressive improvements of the lovely babe are an ample reward.
The circus is a place of fashionable resort of late, but not agreeable to me. I think it inconsistent with the delicacy of a lady, even to witness the indecorums, which are practised there; especially, when the performers of equestrian feats are of our own sex. To see a woman depart so far from the female character, as to assume the masculine habit and attitudes; and appear entirely indifferent, even to the externals of modesty, is truly disgusting, and ought not to be countenanced by our attendance, much less by our approbation.
Indeed, I feared some immediate and fatal effect. I therefore seated myself beside her; and assuming an air of kindness, compose yourself, Eliza, said I; I repeat what I told you before, it is the purest friendship, which thus interests me in your concerns. This, under the direction of charity, induces me again to offer you my hand. Yet you have erred against knowledge and reason; against warning and counsel. You have forfeited the favor of your friends; and reluctant will be their forgiveness. I plead guilty, said she, to all your charges. From the general voice I expect no clemency. If I can make my peace with my mother, it is all I seek or wish on this side the grave.
I foresee, my dear Mrs. Sumner, that this disastrous affair will suspend your enjoyments, as it has mine. But what are our feelings, compared with the pangs which rend a parent’s heart? This parent, I here behold, inhumanly stripped of the best solace of her declining years, by the ensnaring machinations of a profligate debauchee! Not only the life, but what was still dearer, the reputation and virtue of the unfortunate Eliza, have fallen victims at the shrine of libertinism! Detested be the epithet! Let it henceforth bear its true signature, and candor itself shall call it lust and brutality!
How sincerely I sympathize with the bereaved parent of the dear, deceased Eliza, I can feel, but have not power to express. Let it be her consolation, that her child is at rest. The resolution which carried this deluded wanderer thus far from her friends, and supported her through her various trials, is astonishing! Happy would it have been, had she exerted an equal degree of fortitude in repelling the first attacks upon her virtue! But she is no more; and heaven forbid that I should accuse or reproach her!
Upon your reflecting and steady mind, my dear Julia, I need not inculcate the lessons which may be drawn from this woe-fraught tale; but for the sake of my sex in general, I wish it engraved upon every heart, that virtue alone, independent of the trappings of wealth, the parade of equipage, and the adulation of gallantry, can secure lasting felicity. From the melancholy story of Eliza Wharton, let the American fair learn to reject with disdain every insinuation derogatory to their true dignity and honor. Let them despise, and for ever banish the man, who can glory in the seduction of innocence and the ruin of reputation. To associate, is to approve; to approve, is to be betrayed!